James Wood

The Rowling Effect: The Uses and Abuses of Storytelling in Literary Fiction

It’s in school that almost everyone first experiences both the joys and the difficulties of reading stories. And almost everyone quickly learns to associate reading fiction with all the other abstract, impersonal, and cognitively demanding tasks forced on them by their teachers. One of the rewards of graduation, indeed of adulthood, is that you no longer have to read boring stories and novels you have to work hard to understand, all those lengthy texts that repay the effort with little else besides the bragging rights for having finished. (So, on top of being a waste of time, reading books makes normal people hate you.) One of the worst fates for an author, meanwhile, is to have your work assigned in one of those excruciating lit courses students treat as way stations on their way to gainful employment, an honor all but guaranteed to inspire lifelong loathing.

As a lonely endeavor, reading is most enticing—for many it’s only enticing—when viewed as an act of rebellion. (It’s no accident that the Harry Potter books begin with scenes of life with the Dursley family, caricaturizing as it does conformity and harsh, arbitrary discipline.) So, if students’ sole motivation to read comes from on-high, with the promise of quizzes and essays to follow, the natural defiance of adolescence ensures a deep-seated suspicion of the true purpose of the assignment and a stubborn resistance to any emotional connection with the characters. This is why all but the tamest, most credulous of students get filtered out on the way to advanced literature courses at universities, the kids neediest of praise from teachers and least capable of independent thought, which is in turn why so many cockamamie ideas proliferate in English departments. As arcane theories about the “indeterminacy of meaning” or “the author function” trickle down into high schools and grade schools, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine, let alone test, possible reforms to the methods teachers use to introduce kids to written stories.
  
Miraculously, reading persists at the margins of society, far removed from the bloodless academic exercises students are programmed to dread. The books you’re most likely to read after graduation are the type you read when you’re supposed to be reading something else, the comics tucked inside textbooks, the unassigned or outright banned books featuring characters struggling with sex, religious doubt, violence, abortion, or corrupt authorities. One of the reasons the market for books written for young adults is currently so vibrant and successful is that literature teachers haven’t gotten around to including any of the most recent novels in their syllabuses. And, if teachers take to heart the admonitions of critics like Ruth Graham, who insists that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction,” they never will. YA books' biggest success is making reading its own reward, not an exercise in the service of developing knowledge or character or maturity—whatever any of those are supposed to be. And what naysayers like Graham fear is that such enjoyment might be coming at the expense of those same budding virtues, and it may even forestall the reader’s graduation to the more refined gratifications that come from reading more ambiguous and complex—or more difficult, or less fantastical—fiction. 

James Wood
Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon at a time when authors, publishers, and critics were busy breaking the news of the dismal prognosis for the novel, beset as it was by the rise of the internet, the new golden age of television, and a growing impatience with texts extending more than a few paragraphs. The impact may not have been felt in the wider literary world if the popularity of Rowling’s books had been limited to children and young adults, but British and American grownups seem to have reasoned that if the youngsters think it’s cool it’s probably worth it for the rest of us young-at-hearts to take a look. Now not only are adults reading fiction written for teens, but authors—even renowned literary authors—are taking their cue from the YA world. Marquee writers like Donna Tartt and David Mitchell are spinning out elaborate yarns teeming with teen-tested genre tropes they hope to make respectable with a liberal heaping of highly polished literary prose. Predictably, the laments and jeremiads from old-school connoisseurs are beginning to show up in high-end periodicals. Here’s James Wood’s opening to a review of Mitchell’s latest novel:

As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J.K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Maddox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

As is customary for Wood, the bracingly eloquent clarifications in this passage serve to misdirect readers from its overall opacity, which is to say he begs more questions than he answers.

              The most remarkable thing in Wood’s advance elegy (an idea right out of Tom Sawyer and reprised in The Fault in Our Stars) is the idea that “the novel” is somehow at odds with storytelling. The charge that a given novel fails to rise above mere kitsch is often a legitimate one: a likable but attractively flawed character meets another likable character whose equally attractive flaws perfectly complement and compensate for those of the first, so that they can together transcend their foibles and live happily ever after. This is the formula for commercial fiction, designed to uplift and delight (and make money). But the best of YA novels are hardly guilty of this kind of pandering. And even if we acknowledge that an author aiming simply to be popular and pleasing is a good formula in its own right—for crappy novels—it doesn’t follow that quality writing precludes pleasurable reading. The questions critics like Graham and Wood fail to answer as they bemoan the decline of ambiguity on the one hand and meaning on the other is what role either one of them naturally plays, either in storytelling or in literature, and what really distinguishes a story from a supposedly more serious and meaningful novel?

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Goldfinch has rekindled an old debate about the difference between genre fiction and serious literature. Evgenia Peretz chronicles some earlier iterations of the argument in Vanity Fair, and the popularity of Rowling’s wizards keeps coming up, both as an emblem of the wider problem and a point of evidence proving its existence. As Christopher Beha explains in the New Yorker,

The problem with “The Goldfinch,” its detractors said, was that it was essentially a Y.A. novel. Vanity Fair quoted Wood as saying that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”

For Wood—and he’s hardly alone—fantastical fiction lacks meaning for the very reason so many readers find it enjoyable: it takes place in a world that simply doesn’t exist, with characters like no one you’ll ever really encounter, and the plots resolve in ways that, while offering some modicum of reassurance and uplift, ultimately mislead everyone about what real, adult life is all about. Whatever meaning these simplified and fantastical fictions may have is thus hermetically sealed within the world of the story.

            The terms used in the debates over whether there’s a meaningful difference between commercial and literary fiction and whether adults should be embarrassed to be caught reading Harry Potter are so poorly defined, and the nature of stories so poorly understood, that it seems like nothing will ever be settled. But the fuzziness here is gratuitous. Graham’s cherishing of ambiguity is perfectly arbitrary. Wood is simply wrong in positing a natural tension between storytelling and meaning. And these critics’ gropings after some solid feature of good, serious, complex, adult literature they can hold up to justify their impatience and disappointment in less ambitious readers is symptomatic of the profound vacuity of literary criticism as both a field of inquiry and an artistic, literary form of its own. Even a critic as erudite and perceptive as Wood—and as eminently worth reading, even when he’s completely wrong—relies on fundamental misconceptions about the nature of stories and the nature of art.

            For Wood, the terms story, genre, plot, and occurrence are all but interchangeable. That’s how he can condemn “the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” But the type of meaning he seeks in literature sounds a lot like philosophy or science. How does he distinguish between novels and treatises? The problem here is that story is not reducible to sheer occurrence. Plots are not mere sequences of events. If I tell you I got in my car, went to the store, and came home, I’m recalling a series of actions—but it’s hardly a story. However, if I say I went to the store and while I was there I accidentally bumped shoulders with a guy who immediately flew into a rage, then I’ve begun to tell you a real story. Many critics and writing coaches characterize this crucial ingredient as conflict, but that’s only partly right. Conflicts can easily be reduced to a series of incidents. What makes a story a story is that it features some kind of dilemma, some situation in which the protagonist has to make a difficult decision. Do I risk humiliation and apologize profusely to the guy whose shoulder I bumped? Do I risk bodily harm and legal trouble by standing up for myself? There’s no easy answer. That’s why it has the makings of a good story.

            Meaning in stories is not declarative or propositional, just as the point of physical training doesn’t lie in any communicative aspect of the individual exercises. And you wouldn’t judge a training regimen based solely on the exercises’ resemblance to actions people perform in their daily lives. A workout is good if it’s both enjoyable and effective, that is, if going through it offers sufficient gratification to outweigh the difficulty—so you keep doing it—and if you see improvements in the way you look and feel. The pleasure humans get from stories is probably a result of the same evolutionary processes that make play fighting or play stalking fun for cats and dogs. We need to acquire skills for handling our complex social lives just as they need to acquire skills for fighting and hunting. Play is free-style practice made pleasurable by natural selection to ensure we’re rewarded for engaging in it. The form that play takes, as important as it is in preparing for real-life challenges, only needs to resemble real life enough for the skills it hones to be applicable. And there’s no reason reading about Harry Potter working through his suspicions and doubts about Dumbledore couldn’t help to prepare people of any age for a similar experience of having to question the wisdom or trustworthiness of someone they admire—even though they don’t know any wizards. (And isn’t this dilemma similar to the one so many of Saul Bellow’s characters face in dealing with their “reality instructors” in the novels Wood loves most?)

            The rather obvious principle that gets almost completely overlooked in debates about low versus high art is that the more refined and complex a work is the more effort will be necessary to fully experience it and the fewer people will be able to fully appreciate it. The exquisite pleasures of long-distance running, or classical music, or abstract art are reserved for those who have done adequate training and acquired sufficient background knowledge. Apart from this inescapable corollary of aesthetic refinement and sophistication, though, there’s a fetishizing of difficulty for the sake of difficulty apparent in many art forms. In literature, novels celebrated by the supposed authorities, books like Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, and Infinite Jest, offer none of the joys of good stories. Is it any wonder so many readers have stopped listening to the authorities? Wood is not so foolish as to equate difficulty with quality, as fans of Finnegan’s Wake must, but he does indeed make the opposite mistake—assuming that lack of difficulty proves lack of quality. There’s also an unmistakable hint of the puritanical, even the masochistic in Wood’s separation of the novel from storytelling and its pleasures. He’s like the hulking power lifter overcome with disappointment at all the dilettantish fitness enthusiasts parading around the gym, smiling, giggling, not even exerting themselves enough to feel any real pain.  

            What the Harry Potter books are telling us is that there still exists a real hunger for stories, not just as flippant and senseless contrivances, but as rigorously imagined moral dilemmas faced by characters who inspire strong feelings, whether positive, negative, or ambivalent. YA fiction isn't necessarily simpler, its characters invariably bland baddies or goodies, its endings always neat and happy. The only things that reliably distinguish it are its predominantly young adult characters and its general accessibility. It's probably true that The Goldfinch's appeal to many people derives from it being both literary and accessible. More interestingly, it probably turns off just as many people, not because it's overplotted, but because the story is mediocre, the central dilemma of the plot too easily resolved, the main character too passive and pathetic. Call me an idealist, but I believe that literary language can be challenging while not being impenetrable, that plots can be both eventful and meaningful, and that there’s a reliable blend of ingredients for mixing this particular magic potion: characters who actually do things, whose actions get them mixed up in high-stakes dilemmas, who are described in language that both captures their personalities and conveys the urgency of their circumstances. This doesn’t mean every novel needs to have dragons and werewolves, but it does mean having them doesn’t necessarily make a novel unworthy of serious attention from adults. And we need not worry about the fate of less fantastical literature because there will always be a small percentage of the population who prefers, at least on occasion, a heavier lift.

Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

And: What's the Point of Difficult Reading?



How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

            Any acclaimed novel of violence must be cause for alarm to anyone who believes stories encourage the behaviors depicted in them or contaminate the minds of readers with the attitudes of the characters. “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument,” writes David Shields in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger. Suspicious of any such disguised effort at persuasion, Shields bemoans the continuing popularity of traditional novels and agitates on behalf of a revolutionary new form of writing, a type of collage that is neither marked as fiction nor claimed as truth but functions rather as a happy hybrid—or, depending on your tastes, a careless mess—and is in any case completely lacking in narrative structure. This is because to him giving narrative structure to a piece of writing is itself a rhetorical move. “I always try to read form as content, style as meaning,” Shields writes. “The book is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language” (197).

As arcane as Shields’s approach to reading may sound, his attempt to find some underlying message in every novel resonates with the preoccupations popular among academic literary critics. But what would it mean if novels really were primarily concerned with their own language, as so many students in college literature courses are taught? What if there really were some higher-order meaning we absorbed unconsciously through reading, even as we went about distracting ourselves with the details of description, character, and plot? Might a novel like Heart of Darkness, instead of being about Marlowe’s growing awareness of Kurtz’s descent into inhuman barbarity, really be about something that at first seems merely contextual and incidental, like the darkness—the evil—of sub-Saharan Africa and its inhabitants? Might there be a subtle prompt to regard Kurtz’s transformation as some breed of enlightenment, a fatal lesson encapsulated and propagated by Conrad’s fussy and beautifully tantalizing prose, as if the author were wielding the English language like the fastenings of a yoke over the entire continent?
David Shields

Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and, more recently, Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, take place amid a transition from tribal societies to industrial civilization similar to the one occurring in Conrad’s Congo. Is it in this seeming backdrop that we should seek the true meaning of these tales of violence? Both McCarthy’s and Wilson’s novels, it must be noted, represent conspicuous efforts at undermining the sanitized and Manichean myths that arose to justify the displacement and mass killing of indigenous peoples by Europeans as they spread over the far-flung regions of the globe. The white men hunting “Indians” for the bounties on their scalps in Blood Meridian are as beastly and bloodthirsty as the savages peopling the most lurid colonial propaganda, just as the Europeans making up Wilson’s roving party are only distinguishable by the relative degrees of their moral degradation, all of them, including the protagonist, moving in the shadow of their chief quarry, a native Tasmanian chief.

If these novels are about their own language, their form comprising their true content, all in the service of some allegory or argument, then what pleasure would anyone get from them, suggesting as they do that to partake of the fruit of civilization is to become complicit in the original sin of the massacre that made way for it? “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It could be that to read these novels is to undergo a sort of rite of expiation, similar to the ritual reenactment of the crucifixion performed by Christians in the lead up to Easter. Alternatively, the real argument hidden in these stories may be still more insidious; what if they’re making the case that violence is both eternal and unavoidable, that it is in our nature to relish it, so there’s no more point in resisting the urge personally than in trying to bring about reform politically?

            Shields intimates that the reason we enjoy stories is that they warrant our complacency when he writes, “To ‘tell a story well’ is to make what one writes resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality” (200). Just as we take pleasure in arguments for what we already believe, Shields maintains (explicitly) that we delight in stories that depict familiar scenes and resolve in ways compatible with our convictions. And this equating of the pleasure we take in reading with the pleasure we take in having our beliefs reaffirmed is another practice nearly universal among literary critics. Sophisticated readers know better than to conflate the ideas professed by villainous characters like the judge in Blood Meridian with those of the author, but, as one prominent critic complains,

there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or [Harold] Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be.

What’s interesting about this interpretation is that it doesn’t come from anyone normally associated with Shields’s school of thought on literature. Indeed, its author, James Wood, is something of a scourge to postmodern scholars of Shields’s ilk.

Wood takes McCarthy to task for his alleged narrative dissemination of the myth of eternal violence in a 2005 New Yorker piece, Red Planet: The Sanguinary Sublime of Cormac McCarthy, a review of his then latest novel No Country for Old Men. Wood too, it turns out, hungers for reality in his novels, and he faults McCarthy’s book for substituting psychological profundity with the pabulum of standard plot devices. He insists that

the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar. It is 1980, and a young man, Llewelyn Moss, is out antelope hunting in the Texas desert. He stumbles upon several bodies, three trucks, and a case full of money. He takes the money. We know that he is now a marked man; indeed, a killer named Anton Chigurh—it is he who opens the book by strangling the deputy—is on his trail.

Because McCarthy relies on the tropes of a familiar genre to convey his meaning, Wood suggests, that meaning can only apply to the hermetic universe imagined by that genre. In other words, any meaning conveyed in No Country for Old Men is rendered null in transit to the real world.

When Chigurh tells the blameless Carla Jean that “the shape of your path was visible from the beginning,” most readers, tutored in the rhetoric of pulp, will write it off as so much genre guff. But there is a way in which Chigurh is right: the thriller form knew all along that this was her end.

The acuity of Wood’s perception when it comes to the intricacies of literary language is often staggering, and his grasp of how diction and vocabulary provide clues to the narrator’s character and state of mind is equally prodigious. But, in this dismissal of Chigurh as a mere plot contrivance, as in his estimation of No Country for Old Men in general as a “morally empty book,” Wood is quite simply, quite startlingly, mistaken. And we might even say that the critical form knew all along that he would make this mistake.

 
James Wood
           When Chigurh tells Carla Jean her path was visible, he’s not voicing any hardboiled fatalism, as Wood assumes; he’s pointing out that her predicament came about as a result of a decision her husband Llewelyn Moss made with full knowledge of the promised consequences. And we have to ask, could Wood really have known, before Chigurh showed up at the Moss residence, that Carla Jean would be made to pay for her husband’s defiance? It’s easy enough to point out superficial similarities to genre conventions in the novel (many of which it turns inside-out), but it doesn’t follow that anyone who notices them will be able to foretell how the book will end. Wood, despite his reservations, admits that No Country for Old Men is “very gripping.” But how could it be if the end were so predictable? And, if it were truly so morally empty, why would Wood care how it was going to end enough to be gripped? Indeed, it is in the realm of the characters’ moral natures that Wood is the most blinded by his reliance on critical convention. He argues,

Lewelyn Moss, the hunted, ought not to resemble Anton Chigurh, the hunter, but the flattening effect of the plot makes them essentially indistinguishable. The reader, of course, sides with the hunted. But both have been made unfree by the fake determinism of the thriller.

How could the two men’s fates be determined by the genre if in a good many thrillers the good guy, the hunted, prevails?

Fixin to do somethin dumbern hell
One glaring omission in Wood’s analysis is that Moss initially escapes undetected with the drug money he discovers at the scene of the shootout he happens upon while hunting, but he is then tormented by his conscience until he decides to return to the trucks with a jug of water for a dying man who begged him for a drink. “I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways,” he says to Carla Jean when she asks what he’s doing. “If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her” (24). Llewelyn, throughout the ensuing chase, is thus being punished for doing the right thing, an injustice that unsettles readers to the point where we can’t look away—we’re gripped—until we’re assured that he ultimately defeats the agents of that injustice. While Moss risks his life to give a man a drink, Chigurh, as Wood points out, is first seen killing a cop. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine Moss showing up to murder an innocent woman to make good on an ultimatum he’d presented to a man who had already been killed in the interim—as Chigurh does in the scene when he explains to Carla Jean that she’s to be killed because Llewelyn made the wrong choice.

Chigurh is in fact strangely principled, in a morally inverted sort of way, but the claim that he’s indistinguishable from Moss bespeaks a failure of attention completely at odds with the uncannily keen-eyed reading we’ve come to expect from Wood. When he revisits McCarthy’s writing in a review of the 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road, collected in the book The Fun Stuff, Wood is once again impressed by McCarthy’s “remarkable effects” but thoroughly baffled by “the matter of his meanings” (61). The novel takes us on a journey south to the sea with a father and his son as they scrounge desperately for food in abandoned houses along the way. Wood credits McCarthy for not substituting allegory for the answer to “a simpler question, more taxing to the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction making: what would this world without people look like, feel like?” But then he unaccountably struggles to sift out the novel’s hidden philosophical message. He writes,

A post-apocalyptic vision cannot but provoke dilemmas of theodicy, of the justice of fate; and a lament for the Deus absconditus is both implicit in McCarthy’s imagery—the fine simile of the sun that circles the earth “like a grieving mother with a lamp”—and explicit in his dialogue. Early in the book, the father looks at his son and thinks: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” There are thieves and murderers and even cannibals on the loose, and the father and son encounter these fearsome envoys of evil every so often. The son needs to think of himself as “one of the good guys,” and his father assures him that this is the side they are indeed on. (62)

We’re left wondering, is there any way to answer the question of what a post-apocalypse would be like in a story that features starving people reduced to cannibalism without providing fodder for genre-leery critics on the lookout for characters they can reduce to mere “envoys of evil”?

As trenchant as Wood is regarding literary narration, and as erudite—or pedantic, depending on your tastes—as he is regarding theology, the author of the excellent book How Fiction Works can’t help but fall afoul of his own, and his discipline’s, thoroughgoing ignorance when it comes to how plots work, what keeps the moral heart of a story beating. The way Wood fails to account for the forest comprised of the trees he takes such thorough inventory of calls to mind a line of his own from a chapter in The Fun Stuff about Edmund Wilson, describing an uncharacteristic failure on part of this other preeminent critic:

Yet the lack of attention to detail, in a writer whose greatness rests supremely on his use of detail, the unwillingness to talk of fiction as if narrative were a special kind of aesthetic experience and not a reducible proposition… is rather scandalous. (72)

To his credit, though, Wood never writes about novels as if they were completely reducible to their propositions; he doesn’t share David Shields’s conviction that stories are nothing but allegories or disguised philosophical arguments. Indeed, few critics are as eloquent as Wood on the capacity of good narration to communicate the texture of experience in a way all literate people can recognize from their own lived existences.

            But Wood isn’t interested in plot. He just doesn’t seem to like them. (There’s no mention of plot in either the table of contents or the index to How Fiction Works.) Worse, he shares Shields’s and other postmodern critics’ impulse to decode plots and their resolutions—though he also searches for ways to reconcile whatever moral he manages to pry from the story with its other elements. This is in fact one of the habits that tends to derail his reviews. Even after lauding The Road’s eschewal of easy allegory in place of the hard work of ground-up realism, Wood can’t help trying to decipher the end of the novel in the context of the religious struggle he sees taking place in it. He writes of the son’s survival,

The boy is indeed a kind of last God, who is “carrying the fire” of belief (the father and son used to speak of themselves, in a kind of familial shorthand, as people who were carrying the fire: it seems to be a version of being “the good guys”.) Since the breath of God passes from man to man, and God cannot die, this boy represents what will survive of humanity, and also points to how life will be rebuilt. (64)

This interpretation underlies Wood’s contemptuous attitude toward other reviewers who found the story uplifting, including Oprah, who used The Road as one of her book club selections. To Wood, the message rings false. He complains that

a paragraph of religious consolation at the end of such a novel is striking, and it throws the book off balance a little, precisely because theology has not seemed exactly central to the book’s inquiry. One has a persistent, uneasy sense that theodicy and the absent God have been merely exploited by the book, engaged with only lightly, without much pressure of interrogation. (64)

Inquiry? Interrogation? Whatever happened to “special kind of aesthetic experience”? Wood first places seemingly inconsequential aspects of the novel at the center of his efforts to read meaning into it, and then he faults the novel for not exploring these aspects at greater length. The more likely conclusion we might draw here is that Wood is simply and woefully mistaken in his interpretation of the book’s meaning. Indeed, Wood’s jump to theology, despite his insistence on its inescapability, is really quite arbitrary, one of countless themes a reader might possibly point to as indicative of the novel’s one true meaning.

Cormac McCarthy
Perhaps the problem here is the assumption that a story must have a meaning, some point that can be summed up in a single statement, for it to grip us. Getting beyond the issue of what statement the story is trying to make, we can ask what it is about the aesthetic experience of reading a novel that we find so compelling. For Wood, it’s clear the enjoyment comes from a sort of communion with the narrator, a felt connection forged by language, which effects an estrangement from his own mundane experiences by passing them through the lens of the character’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, phrasings, and metaphors. The sun dimly burning through an overcast sky looks much different after you’ve heard it compared to “a grieving mother with a lamp.” This pleasure in authorial communion and narrative immersion is commonly felt by the more sophisticated of literary readers. But what about less sophisticated readers? Many people who have a hard enough time simply understanding complex sentences, never mind discovering in them clues to the speaker’s personality, nevertheless become absorbed in narratives.

Developmental psychologists Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom, along with then graduate student Kiley Hamlin, serendipitously discovered a major clue to the mystery of why fictional stories engage humans’ intellectual and emotional faculties so powerfully while trying to determine at what age children begin to develop a moral sense. In a series of experiments conducted at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, Wynn and her team found that babies under a year old, even as young as three months, are easily induced to attribute agency to inanimate objects with nothing but a pair of crude eyes to suggest personhood. And, astonishingly, once agency is presumed, these infants begin attending to the behavior of the agents for evidence of their propensities toward being either helpfully social or selfishly aggressive—even when they themselves aren’t the ones to whom the behaviors are directed. 

            In one of the team’s most dramatic demonstrations, the infants watch puppet shows featuring what Bloom, in his book about the research program Just Babies, refers to as “morality plays” (30). Two rabbits respond to a tiger’s overture of rolling a ball toward them in different ways, one by rolling it back playfully, the other by snatching it up and running away with it. When the babies are offered a choice between the two rabbits after the play, they nearly always reach for the “good guy.” However, other versions of the experiment show that babies do favor aggressive rabbits over nice ones—provided that the victim is itself guilty of some previously witnessed act of selfishness or aggression. So the infants prefer cooperation over selfishness and punishment over complacency.

            Wynn and Hamlin didn’t intend to explore the nature of our fascination with fiction, but even the most casual assessment of our most popular stories suggests their appeal to audiences depends on a distinction similar to the one made by the infants in these studies. Indeed, the most basic formula for storytelling could be stated: good guy struggles against bad guy. Our interest is automatically piqued once such a struggle is convincingly presented, and it doesn’t depend on any proposition that can be gleaned from the outcome. We favor the good guy because his (or her) altruism triggers an emotional response—we like him. And our interest in the ongoing developments of the story—the plot—are both emotional and dynamic. This is what the aesthetic experience of narrative consists of. 

            The beauty in stories comes from the elevation we get from the experience of witnessing altruism, and the higher the cost to the altruist the more elevating the story. The symmetry of plots is the balance of justice. Stories meant to disturb readers disrupt that balance.The crudest stories pit good guys against bad guys. The more sophisticated stories feature what we hope are good characters struggling against temptations or circumstances that make being good difficult, or downright dangerous. In other words, at the heart of any story is a moral dilemma, a situation in which characters must decide who deserves what fate and what they’re willing to pay to ensure they get it. The specific details of that dilemma are what we recognize as the plot.

The most basic moral, lesson, proposition, or philosophical argument inherent in the experience of attending to a story derives then not from some arbitrary decision on the part of the storyteller but from an injunction encoded in our genome. At some point in human evolution, our ancestor’s survival began to depend on mutual cooperation among all the members of the tribe, and so to this day, and from a startlingly young age, we’re on the lookout for anyone who might be given to exploiting the cooperative norms of our group. Literary critics could charge that the appeal of the altruist is merely another theme we might at this particular moment in history want to elevate to the status of most fundamental aspect of narrative. But I would challenge anyone who believes some other theme, message, or dynamic is more crucial to our engagement with stories to subject their theory to the kind of tests the interplay of selfish and altruistic impulses routinely passes in the Yale studies. Do babies care about theodicy? Are Wynn et al.’s morality plays about their own language?

This isn’t to say that other themes or allegories never play a role in our appreciation of novels. But whatever role they do play is in every case ancillary to the emotional involvement we have with the moral dilemmas of the plot. 1984 and Animal Farm are clear examples of allegories—but their greatness as stories is attributable to the appeal of their characters and the convincing difficulty of their dilemmas. Without a good plot, no one would stick around for the lesson. If we didn’t first believe Winston Smith deserved to escape Room 101 and that Boxer deserved a better fate than the knackery, we’d never subsequently be moved to contemplate the evils of totalitarianism. What makes these such powerful allegories is that, if you subtracted the political message, they’d still be great stories because they engage our moral emotions.

            What makes violence so compelling in fiction then is probably not that it sublimates our own violent urges, or that it justifies any civilization’s past crimes; violence simply ups the stakes for the moral dilemmas faced by the characters. The moment by moment drama in The Road, for instance, has nothing to do with whether anyone continues to believe in God. The drama comes from the father and son’s struggles to resist having to succumb to theft and cannibalism to survive. That’s the most obvious theme recurring throughout the novel. And you get the sense that were it not for the boy’s constant pleas for reassurance that they would never kill and eat anyone—the ultimate act of selfish aggression—and that they would never resort to bullying and stealing, the father quite likely would have made use of such expedients. The fire that they’re carrying is not the light of God; it’s the spark of humanity, the refusal to forfeit their human decency. (Wood doesn't catch that the fire was handed off from Sheriff Bell's father at the end of No Country.) The boy may very well be a redeemer, in that he helps his father make it to the end of his life with a clear conscience, but unless you believe morality is exclusively the bailiwick of religion God’s role in the story is marginal at best.

            What the critics given to dismissing plots as pointless fabrications fail to consider is that just as idiosyncratic language and simile estranges readers from their mundane existence so too the high-stakes dilemmas that make up plots can make us see our own choices in a different light, effecting their own breed of estrangement with regard to our moral perceptions and habits. In The Roving Party, set in the early nineteenth century, Black Bill, a native Tasmanian raised by a white family, joins a group of men led by a farmer named John Batman to hunt and kill other native Tasmanians and secure the territory for the colonials. The dilemmas Bill faces are like nothing most readers will ever encounter. But their difficulty is nonetheless universally understandable. In the following scene, Bill, who is also called the Vandemonian, along with a young boy and two native scouts, watches as Batman steps up to a wounded clansman in the aftermath of a raid on his people.

Batman considered the silent man secreted there in the hollow and thumbed back the hammers. He put one foot either side of the clansman’s outstretched legs and showed him the long void of those bores, standing thus prepared through a few creakings of the trees. The warrior was wide-eyed, looking to Bill and to the Dharugs.
The eruption raised the birds squealing from the branches. As the gunsmoke cleared the fellow slumped forward and spilled upon the soil a stream of arterial blood. The hollow behind was peppered with pieces of skull and other matter. John Batman snapped open the locks, cleaned out the pans with his cloth and mopped the blood off the barrels. He looked around at the rovers.
The boy was openmouthed, pale, and he stared at the ruination laid out there at his feet and stepped back as the blood ran near his rags. The Dharugs had by now turned away and did not look back. They began retracing their track through the rainforest, picking among the fallen trunks. But Black Bill alone among that party met Batman’s eye. He resettled his fowling piece across his back and spat on the ferns, watching Batman. Batman pulled out his rum, popped loose the cork, and drank. He held out the vessel to Bill. The Vandemonian looked at him. Then he turned to follow the Parramatta men out among the lemon myrtles and antique pines. (92)

If Rohan Wilson had wanted to expound on the evils of colonialism in Tasmania, he might have written about how Batman, a real figure from history, murdered several men he could easily have taken prisoner. But Wilson wanted to tell a story, and he knew that dilemmas like this one would grip our emotions. He likewise knew he didn’t have to explain that Bill, however much he disapproves of the murder, can’t afford to challenge his white benefactor in any less subtle manner than meeting his eyes and refusing his rum.

Rohan Wilson
            Unfortunately, Batman registers the subtle rebuke all too readily. Instead of killing a native lawman wounded in a later raid himself, Batman leaves the task to Bill, who this time isn’t allowed the option of silently disapproving. But the way Wilson describes Bill’s actions leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about his feelings, and those feelings have important consequences for how we feel about the character.

Black Bill removed his hat. He worked back the heavy cocks of both barrels and they settled with a dull clunk. Taralta clutched at his swaddled chest and looked Bill in the eyes, as wordless as ground stone. Bill brought up the massive gun and steadied the barrels across his forearm as his broken fingers could not take the weight. The sight of those octagonal bores levelled on him caused the lawman to huddle down behind his hands and cry out, and Bill steadied the gun but there was no clear shot he might take. He waited.
                        See now, he said. Move your hands.
            The lawman crabbed away over the dirt, still with his arms upraised, and Bill followed him and kicked him in the bandaged ribs and kicked at his arms.
                        menenger, Bill said, menenger.
The lawman curled up more tightly. Bill brought the heel of his boot to bear on the wounded man but he kicked in vain while Taralta folded his arms ever tighter around his head.
Black Bill lowered the gun. Wattlebirds made their yac-a-yac coughs in the bush behind and he gazed at the blue hills to the south and the snow clouds forming above them. When Bill looked again at the lawman he was watching through his hands, dirt and ash stuck in the cords of his ochred hair. Bill brought the gun up, balanced it across his arm again and tucked the butt into his shoulder. Then he fired into the lawman’s head.
The almighty concussion rattled the wind in his chest and the gun bucked from his grip and fell. He turned away, holding his shoulder. Blood had spattered his face, his arms, the front of his shirt. For a time he would not look at the body of the lawman where it lay near the fire. He rubbed at the bruising on his shoulder; watched storms amass around the southern peaks. After a while he turned to survey the slaughter he had wrought.
One of the lawman’s arms was gone at the elbow and the teeth seated in the jawbone could be seen through the cheek. There was flesh blown every place. He picked up the Manton gun. The locks were soiled and he fingered out the grime, and then with the corner of his coat cleaned the pan and blew into the latchworks. He brought the weapon up to eye level and peered along its sights for barrel warps or any misalignment then, content, slung the leather on his shoulder. Without a rearward glance he stalked off, his hat replaced, his boots slipping in the blood. Smoke from the fire blew around him in a snarl raised on the wind and dispersed again on the same. (102-4)

Depending on their particular ideological bent, critics may charge that a scene like this simply promotes the type of violence it depicts, or that it encourages a negative view of native Tasmanians—or indigenous peoples generally—as of such weak moral fiber that they can be made to turn against their own countrymen. And pointing out that the aspect of the scene that captures our attention is the process, the experience, of witnessing Bill’s struggle to resolve his dilemma would do little to ease their worries; after all, even if the message is ancillary, its influence could still be pernicious.

            The reason that critics applying their favored political theories to their analyses of fiction so often stray into the realm of the absurd is that the only readers who experience stories the same way as they do will be the ones who share the same ideological preoccupations. You can turn any novel into a Rorschach, pulling out disparate shapes and elements to blur into some devious message. But any reader approaching the writing without your political theories or your critical approach will likely come away with a much more basic and obvious lesson. Black Bill’s dilemma is that he has to kill many of his fellow Tasmanians if he wants to continue living as part of a community of whites. If readers take on his attitude toward killing as it’s demonstrated in the scene when he kills Taralta, they’ll be more reluctant to do it, not less. Bill clearly loathes what he’s forced to do. And if any race comes out looking bad it’s the whites, since they’re the ones whose culture forces Bill to choose between his family’s well-being and the dictates of his conscience.

Readers likely have little awareness of being influenced by the overarching themes in their favorite stories, but upon reflection the meaning of those themes is usually pretty obvious. Recent research into how reading the Harry Potter books has impacted young people’s political views, for instance, shows that fans of the series are more accepting of out-groups, more tolerant, less predisposed to authoritarianism, more supporting of equality, and more opposed to violence and torture. Anthony Gierzynsky, the author of the study, points out, “As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series.” The messages that reach readers are the conspicuous ones, not the supposedly hidden ones critics pride themselves on being able to suss out. 

            It’s an interesting question just how wicked stories could persuade us to be, relying as they do on our instinctual moral sense. Fans could perhaps be biased toward evil by themes about the threat posed by some out-group, or the debased nature of the lower orders, or nonbelievers in the accepted deities—since the salience of these concepts likewise seems to be inborn. But stories told from the perspective of someone belonging to the persecuted group could provide an antidote. At any rate, there’s a solid case to be made that novels have helped the moral of arc of history bend toward greater justice and compassion.

            Even a novel with violence as pervasive and chaotic as it is in Blood Meridian sets up a moral gradient for the characters to occupy—though finding where the judge fits is a quite complicated endeavor—and the one with the most qualms about killing happens to be the protagonist, referred to simply as the kid. “You alone were mutinous,” the judge says to him. “You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). The kid’s character is revealed much the way Black Bill’s is in The Roving Party, as readers witness him working through high-stakes dilemmas. After drawing arrows to determine who in the band of scalp hunters will stay behind to kill some of their wounded (to prevent a worse fate at the hands of the men pursuing them), the kid finds himself tasked with euthanizing a man who would otherwise survive.

                        You wont thank me if I let you off, he said.
                        Do it then you son of a bitch.
            The kid sat. A light wind was blowing out of the north and some doves had begun to call in the thicket of greasewood behind them.
                        If you want me just to leave you I will.
                        Shelby didnt answer
                        He pushed a furrow in the sand with the heel of his boot. You’ll             have to say.
                        Will you leave me a gun?
                        You know I can’t leave you no gun.
                        You’re no better than him. Are you?
                        The kid didn’t answer. (208)

That “him” is ambiguous; it could either be Glanton, the leader of the gang whose orders the kid is ignoring, or the judge, who engages him throughout the later parts of the novel in a debate about the necessity of violence in history. We know by now that the kid really is better than the judge—at least in the sense that Shelby means. And the kid handles the dilemma, as best he can, by hiding Shelby in some bushes and leaving him with a canteen of water.

These three passages from The Roving Party and Blood Meridian reveal as well something about the language commonly used by authors of violent novels going back to Conrad (perhaps as far back as Tolstoy). Faced with the choice of killing a man—or of standing idly by and allowing him to be killed—the characters hesitate, and the space of their hesitation is filled with details like the type of birdsong that can be heard. This style of “dirty realism,” a turning away from abstraction, away even from thought, to focus intensely on physical objects and the natural world, frustrates critics like James Wood because they prefer their prose to register the characters’ meanderings of mind in the way that only written language can. Writing about No Country for Old Men, Wood complains about all the labeling and descriptions of weapons and vehicles to the exclusion of thought and emotion.

Here is Hemingway’s influence, so popular in male American fiction, of both the pulpy and the highbrow kind. It recalls the language of “A Farewell to Arms”: “He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew.” What appears to be thought is in fact suppressed thought, the mere ratification of male taciturnity. The attempt to stifle sentimentality—“He looked very dead”—itself comes to seem a sentimental mannerism. McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.

Here again Wood is relaxing his otherwise razor-keen capacity for gleaning insights from language and relying instead on the anemic conventions of literary criticism—a discipline obsessed with the enactment of gender roles. (I’m sure Suzanne Collins would be amused by this idea of masculine taciturnity.) But Wood is right to recognize the natural tension between a literature of action and a literature of mind. Imagine how much the impact of Black Bill’s struggle with the necessity of killing Taralta would be blunted if we were privy to his thoughts, all of which are implicit in the scene as Wilson has rendered it anyway.

            Fascinatingly, though, it seems that Wood eventually realized the actual purpose of this kind of evasive prose—and it was Cormac McCarthy he learned it from. As much as Wood lusts after some leap into theological lucubration as characters reflect on the lessons of the post-apocalypse or the meanings of violence, the psychological reality is that it is often in the midst of violence or when confronted with imminent death that people are least given to introspection. As Wood explains in writing about the prose style of The Road,

McCarthy writes at one point that the father could not tell the son about life before the apocalypse: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.” It is the same for the book’s prose style: just as the father cannot construct a story for the boy without also constructing the loss, so the novelist cannot construct the loss without the ghost of the departed fullness, the world as it once was. (55)

The rituals of weapon reloading, car repair, and wound wrapping that Wood finds so offputtingly affected in No Country for Old Men are precisely the kind of practicalities people would try to engage their minds with in the aftermath of violence to avoid facing the reality. But this linguistic and attentional coping strategy is not without moral implications of its own.

            In the opening of The Roving Party, Black Bill receives a visit from some of the very clansmen he’s been asked by John Batman to hunt. The headman of the group is a formidable warrior named Manalargena (another real historical figure), who is said to have magical powers. He has come to recruit Bill to help in fighting against the whites, unaware of Bill’s already settled loyalties. When Bill refuses to come fight with Manalargena, the headman’s response is to tell a story about two brothers who live near a river where they catch plenty of crayfish, make fires, and sing songs. Then someone new arrives on the scene:

Hunter come to the river. He is hungry hunter you see. He want crayfish. He see them brother eating crayfish, singing song. He want crayfish too. He bring up spear. Here the headman made as if to raise something. He bring up that spear and he call out: I hungry, you give me that crayfish. He hold that spear and he call out. But them brother they scared you see. They scared and they run. They run and they change. They change to wallaby and they jump. Now they jump and jump and the hunter he follow them.
So hunter he change too. He run and he change to that wallaby and he jump. Now three wallaby jump near river. They eat grass. They forget crayfish. They eat grass and they drink water and they forget crayfish. Three wallaby near the river. Very big river. (7-8)

Bill initially dismisses the story, saying it makes no sense. Indeed, as a story, it’s terrible. The characters have no substance and the transformation seems morally irrelevant. The story is pure allegory. Interestingly, though, by the end of the novel, its meaning is perfectly clear to Bill. Taking on the roles of hunter and hunted leaves no room for songs, no place for what began the hunt in the first place, creating a life closer to that of animals than of humans. There are no more fires.

            Wood counts three registers authors like Conrad and McCarthy—and we can add Wilson—use in their writing. The first is the dirty realism that conveys the characters’ unwillingness to reflect on their circumstances or on the state of their souls. The third is the lofty but oblique discourse on God’s presence or absence in a world of tragedy and carnage Wood finds so ineffectual. For most readers, though, it’s the second register that stands out. Here’s how Wood describes it:

Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful—and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. (59)

This description captures what’s both great and frustrating about the best and worst lines in these authors’ novels. But Wood takes the tradition for granted without asking why this haltingly graceful and heavy-handedly subtle language is so well-suited to these violent stories. The writers are compelled to use this kind of language by the very effects of the plot and setting that critics today so often fail to appreciate—though Wood does gesture toward it in the title of his essay on No Country for Old Men. The dream logic of song and simile that goes into the aesthetic experience of bearing witness to the characters sparsely peopling the starkly barren and darkly ominous landscapes of these novels carries within it the breath of the sublime.

            In coming to care about characters whose fates unfold in the aftermath of civilization, or in regions where civilization has yet to take hold, places where bloody aggression and violent death are daily concerns and witnessed realities, we’re forced to adjust emotionally to the worlds they inhabit. Experiencing a single death brings a sense of tragedy, but coming to grips with a thousand deaths has a more curious effect. And it is this effect that the strange tangles of metaphorical prose both gesture toward and help to induce. The sheer immensity of the loss, the casual brushing away of so many bodies and the blotting out of so much unique consciousness, overstresses the capacity of any individual to comprehend it. The result is paradoxical, a fixation on the material objects still remaining, and a sliding off of one’s mind onto a plane of mental existence where the material has scarcely any reality at all because it has scarcely any significance at all. The move toward the sublime is a lifting up toward infinite abstraction, the most distant perspective ever possible on the universe, where every image is a symbol for some essence, where every embrace is a symbol for human connectedness, where every individual human is a symbol for humanity. This isn’t the abstraction of logic, the working out of implications about God or cosmic origins. It’s the abstraction of the dream or the religious experience, an encounter with the sacred and the eternal, a falling and fading away of the world of the material and the particular and the mundane.

            The prevailing assumption among critics and readers alike is that fiction, especially literary fiction, attempts to represent some facet of life, so the nature of a given representation can be interpreted as a comment on whatever is being represented. But what if the representations, the correspondences between the fictional world and the nonfictional one, merely serve to make the story more convincing, more worthy of our precious attention? What if fiction isn’t meant to represent reality so much as to alter our perceptions of it? Critics can fault plots like the one in No Country for Old Men, and characters like Anton Chigurh, for having no counterparts outside the world of the story, mooting any comment about the real world the book may be trying to make. But what if the purpose of drawing readers into fictional worlds is to help them see their own worlds anew by giving them a taste of what it would be like to live a much different existence? Even the novels that hew more closely to the mundane, the unremarkable passage of time, are condensed versions of the characters’ lives, encouraging readers to take a broader perspective on their own. The criteria we should apply to our assessments of novels then would not be how well they represent reality and how accurate or laudable their commentaries are. We should instead judge novels by how effectively they pull us into the worlds they create for themselves and how differently we look at our own world in the wake of the experience. And since high-stakes moral dilemmas are the heart of stories we might wonder what effect the experience of witnessing them will have on our own lower-stakes lives.  

Also read:

Hunger Game Theory: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and the Rebirth of Humanity

Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

The World Perspective in War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Genius for Integrating Multiple Perspectives

            Sometime around the age of twenty, probably as I was reading James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, I settled on the narrative strategy I have preferred ever since. At the time, I would have called it third-person limited omniscient, but I would learn later, in a section of a class on nineteenth century literature devoted to Jane Austen’s Emma, that the narrative style I always felt so compelled by was referred to more specifically by literary scholars as free indirect discourse. Regardless of the label, I had already been unconsciously emulating the style for some time by then in my own short stories. Some years later, I became quite fond of the reviews and essays of the literary critic James Wood, partly because he eschewed all the idiotic and downright fraudulent nonsense associated with postmodern pseudo-theories, but partly too because in his book How Fiction Works he both celebrated and expounded at length upon that same storytelling strategy that I found to be the most effective in pulling me into the dramas of fictional characters.

            Free indirect discourse (or free indirect style, as it’s sometimes called) blends first-person with third-person narration, so that even when descriptions aren’t tagged by the author as belonging to the central character we readers can still assume what is being attended to and how it’s being rendered in words are revealing something of that character’s mind. In other words, the author takes the liberty of moving in and out of the character’s mind, detailing thoughts, actions, and outside conditions or events in whatever way most effectively represents—and even simulates—the drama of the story. It’s a tricky thing to master, demanding a sense of proportion and timing, a precise feeling for the key intersecting points of character and plot. And it has a limitation: you really can’t follow more than one character at a time, because doing so would upset the tone and pacing of the story, or else it would expose the shallowness of the author’s penetration. Jumping from one mind to another makes the details seem not so much like a manifestation of the characters’ psyche as a simple byproduct of the author’s writing habits.

            Fiction writers get around this limitation in a number of ways. Some break their stories into sections or chapters and give each one over to a different character. You have to be really good to pull this off successfully; it usually still ends up lending an air of shallowness to the story. Most really great works rendered in free indirect discourse—Herzog, Sabbath’s Theater, Mantel’s Cromwell novels—stick to just one character throughout, and, since the strategy calls for an intensely thorough imagining of the character, the authors tend to stick to protagonists who are somewhat similar to themselves. John Updike, whose linguistic talents were prodigious enough to set him apart even in an era of great literary masters, barely even attempted to bend his language to his characters, and so his best works, like those in the Rabbit series, featured characters who are at least a bit like Updike himself.  

            But what if an author could so thoroughly imagine an entire cast of characters and have such a keen sense of every scene’s key dramatic points that she could incorporate their several perspectives without turning every page into a noisy and chaotic muddle? What if the trick could be pulled off with such perfect timing and proportion that readers’ attention would wash over the scene, from character to character spanning all the objects and accidents in between, without being thrown into confusion and without any attention being drawn to the presence of the author? Not many authors try it—it’s usually a mark of inexperience or lack of talent—but Leo Tolstoy somehow managed to master it.

            War and Peace is the quintessentially huge and intimidating novel—more of a punch line to jokes about pretentious literature geeks than a great masterwork everyone feels obliged to read at some point in her life. But, as often occurs when I begin reading one of the classics, I was surprised to discover not just how unimposing it is page-by-page but how immersed in the story I became by the end of the first few chapters. My general complaint about novels from the nineteenth century is that the authors wrote from too great a distance from their characters, in prose that’s too formal and wooden. It’s impossible to tell if the lightness of touch in War in Peace, as I’m reading it, is more Tolstoy’s or more the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s, but the original author’s handling of perspective is what shines through most spectacularly.

            I’m only as far into the novel as the beginning of volume II (a little past page 300 of over 1200 pages), but much of Tolstoy’s mastery is already on fine display. The following long paragraph features the tragically plain Princess Marya, who for financial reasons is being presented to the handsome Prince Anatole as a candidate for a mutually advantageous marriage. Marya’s pregnant sister-in-law, Liza, referred to as “the little princess” and described as having a tiny mustache on her too-short upper lip, has just been trying, with the help of the pretty French servant Mademoiselle Bourienne, to make her look as comely as possible for her meeting with the young prince and his father Vassily. But Marya has become frustrated with her own appearance, and, aside from her done-up hair, has decided to present herself as she normally is. The scene begins after the two men have arrived and Marya enters the room.

When Princess Marya came in, Prince Vassily and his son were already in the drawing room, talking with the little princess and Mlle Bourienne. When she came in with her heavy step, planting her heels, the men and Mlle Bourienne rose, and the little princess, pointing to her said, “Voila Marie!” Princess Marya saw them all, and saw them in detail. She saw the face of Prince Vassily, momentarily freezing in a serious expression at the sight of the princess, and the face of the little princess, curiously reading on the faces of the guests the impression Marie made. She also saw Mlle Bourienne with her ribbon, and her beautiful face, and her gaze—lively as never before—directed at him; but she could not see him, she saw only something big, bright, and beautiful, which moved towards her as she came into the room. Prince Vassily went up to her first, and she kissed the bald head that bowed over her hand, and to his words replied that, on the contrary, she remembered him very well. Then Anatole came up to her. She still did not see him. She only felt a gentle hand firmly take hold of her hand, and barely touched the white forehead with beautiful, pomaded blond hair above it. When she looked at him, his beauty struck her. Anatole, the thumb of his right hand placed behind a fastened button of his uniform, chest thrust out, shoulders back, swinging his free leg slightly, and inclining his head a little, gazed silently and cheerfully at the princess, obviously without thinking of her at all. Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. When an insecure man is silent at first acquaintance and shows an awareness of the impropriety of this silence and a wish to find something to say, it comes out badly; but Anatole was silent, swung his leg, and cheerfully observed the princess’s hairstyle. It was clear that he could calmly remain silent like that for a very long time. “If anyone feels awkward because of this silence, speak up, but I don’t care to,” his look seemed to say. Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love—a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority. As if he were saying to them with his look: “I know you, I know, but why should I bother with you? And you’d be glad if I did!” Perhaps he did not think that when he met women (and it is even probable that he did not, because he generally thought little), but such was his look and manner. The princess felt it, and, as if wishing to show him that she dared not even think of interesting him, turned to the old prince. The conversation was general and lively, thanks to the little princess’s voice and the lip with its little mustache which kept rising up over her white teeth. She met Prince Vassily in that jocular mode often made use of by garrulously merry people, which consists in the fact that, between the person thus addressed and oneself, there are supposed to exist some long-established jokes and merry, amusing reminiscences, not known to everyone, when in fact there are no such reminiscences, as there were none between the little princess and Prince Vassily. Prince Vassily readily yielded to this tone; the little princess also involved Anatole, whom she barely knew, in this reminiscence of never-existing funny incidents. Mlle Bourienne also shared in these common reminiscences, and even Princess Marya enjoyed feeling herself drawn into this merry reminiscence. (222-3)

In this pre-film era, Tolstoy takes an all-seeing perspective that’s at once cinematic and lovingly close up to his characters, suggesting the possibility that much of the deep focus on individual minds in contemporary fiction is owing to an urge for the one narrative art form to occupy a space left untapped by the other. Still, as simple as Tolstoy’s incorporation of so many minds into the scope of his story may seem as it lies neatly inscribed and eternally memorialized on the page, a fait accompli, his uncanny sense of where to point the camera, as it were, to achieve the most evocative and forwardly propulsive impact in the scene is one not many writers can be counted on to possess. Again, the pitfall lesser talents fall prey to when trying to integrate multiple perspectives like this arises out of an inability to avoid advertising their own presence, which entails a commensurate detraction from the naturalness and verisimilitude of the characters. The way Tolstoy maintains his own invisibility in those perilously well-lit spaces between his characters begins with the graceful directness and precision of his prose but relies a great deal as well on his customary method of characterization.

For Tolstoy, each character’s experience is a particular instance of a much larger trend. So, when the lens of his descriptions focuses in on a character in a particular situation, the zooming doesn’t occur merely in the three-dimensional space of what a camera would record but in the landscape of recognizable human experience as well. You see this in the lines above about how "in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love," and the "jocular mode often made use of by garrulously merry people." Here is a still more illustrative example from when the Countess Rostov is reflecting on a letter from her son Nikolai informing her that he was wounded in battle but also that he’s been promoted to a higher rank.

How strange, extraordinary, joyful it was that her son—that son who twenty years ago had moved his tiny limbs barely perceptibly inside her, that son over whom she had quarreled with the too-indulgent count, that son who had first learned to say “brush,” and then “mamma,” that this son was now there, in a foreign land, in foreign surroundings, a manly warrior, alone, with no help or guidance, and doing there some manly business of his own. All the worldwide, age-old experience showing that children grow in an imperceptible way from the cradle to manhood, did not exist for the countess. Her son’s maturing had been at every point as extraordinary for her as if there had not been millions upon millions of men who had matured in just the same way. As it was hard to believe twenty years ago that the little being who lived somewhere under her heart would start crying, and suck her breast, and begin to talk, so now it was hard to believe that this same being could be the strong, brave man, an example to sons and people, that he was now, judging by his letter. (237)

There’s only a single person in the history of the world who would have these particular feelings in response to this particular letter, but at the same time these same feelings will be familiar—or at least recognizable—to every last person who reads the book.  

While reading War and Peace, you have the sense, not so much that you’re being told a grand and intricate story by an engagingly descriptive author, but that you’re witnessing snippets of countless interconnected lives, selections from a vast historical multitude that are both arbitrary and yet, owing to that very connectedness, significant. Tolstoy shifts breezily between the sociological and the psychological with such finesse that it’s only in retrospect that you realize what he’s just done. As an epigraph to his introduction, Pevear quotes Isaac Babel: “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”  

The biggest drawback to this approach (if you don’t count its reliance on ideas about universals in human existence, which are a bit unfashionable of late) is that since there’s no way to know how long the camera will continue to follow any given character, or who it will be pointed at next, emotional investments in any one person have little chance to accrue any interest. For all the forward momentum of looming marriages and battle deaths, there’s little urgency attached to the fate of any single individual. Indeed, there’s a pervasive air of comic inconsequence, sometimes bordering on slapstick, in all the glorious strivings and abrupt pratfalls. (Another pleasant surprise in store for those who tackle this daunting book is how funny it is.) Of course, with a novel that stretches beyond the thousand-page mark, an author has plenty of time to train readers which characters they can expect to hear more about. Once that process begins, it’s difficult to laugh at their disappointments and tragedies. 

Also read: Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

And: What's the Point of Difficult Reading?

And: Who Needs Complex Narratives?: Tim Parks' Enlightened Cynicism 

Why Shakespeare Nauseated Darwin: A Review of Keith Oatley's "Such Stuff as Dreams"

Review of Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley
            Late in his life, Charles Darwin lost his taste for music and poetry. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he laments in his autobiography, and for many of us the temptation to place all men and women of science into a category of individuals whose minds resemble machines more than living and emotionally attuned organs of feeling and perceiving is overwhelming. In the 21st century, we even have a convenient psychiatric diagnosis for people of this sort. Don’t we just assume Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory has autism, or at least the milder version of it known as Asperger’s? It’s probably even safe to assume the show’s writers had the diagnostic criteria for the disorder in mind when they first developed his character. Likewise, Dr. Watson in the BBC’s new and obscenely entertaining Sherlock series can’t resist a reference to the quintessential evidence-crunching genius’s own supposed Asperger’s. In Darwin’s case, however, the move away from the arts couldn’t have been due to any congenital deficiency in his finer human sentiments because it occurred only in adulthood. He writes,

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure.

We could interpret Darwin here as suggesting that casting his mind too doggedly into his scientific work somehow ruined his capacity to appreciate Shakespeare. But, like all thinkers and writers of great nuance and sophistication, his ideas are easy to mischaracterize through selective quotation (or, if you’re Ben Stein or any of the other unscrupulous writers behind creationist propaganda like the pseudo-documentary Expelled, you can just lie about what he actually wrote). One of the most charming things about Darwin is that his writing is often more exploratory than merely informative. He writes in search of answers he has yet to discover. In a wider context, the quote about his mind becoming a machine, for instance, reads,

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

His concern for his lost aestheticism notwithstanding, Darwin’s humanism, his humanity, radiates in his writing with a warmth that belies any claim about thinking like a machine, just as the intelligence that shows through it gainsays his humble deprecations about the organization of his mind.

           In this excerpt, Darwin, perhaps inadvertently, even manages to put forth a theory of the function of art. Somehow, poetry and music not only give us pleasure and make us happy—enjoying them actually constitutes a type of mental exercise that strengthens our intellect, our emotional awareness, and even our moral character. Novelist and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explores this idea of human betterment through aesthetic experience in his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. This subtitle is notably underwhelming given the long history of psychoanalytic theorizing about the meaning and role of literature. However, whereas psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute among scientists because of its multiple empirical failures and a general methodological hubris common among its practitioners, the work of Oatley and his team at the University of Toronto relies on much more modest, and at the same time much more sophisticated, scientific protocols. One of the tools these researchers use, The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, was in fact first developed to research our new category of people with machine-like minds. What the researchers find bolsters Darwin’s impression that art, at least literary art, functions as a kind of exercise for our faculty of understanding and relating to others.
Keith Oatley

           Reasoning that “fiction is a kind of simulation of selves and their vicissitudes in the social world” (159), Oatley and his colleague Raymond Mar hypothesized that people who spent more time trying to understand fictional characters would be better at recognizing and reasoning about other, real-world people’s states of mind. So they devised a test to assess how much fiction participants in their study read based on how well they could categorize a long list of names according to which ones belonged to authors of fiction, which to authors of nonfiction, and which to non-authors. They then had participants take the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test, which consists of matching close-up pictures of peoples’ eyes with terms describing their emotional state at the time they were taken. The researchers also had participants take the Interpersonal Perception Test, which has them answer questions about the relationships of people in short video clips featuring social interactions. An example question might be “Which of the two children, or both, or neither, are offspring of the two adults in the clip?”  (Imagine Sherlock Holmes taking this test.) As hypothesized, Oatley writes, “We found that the more fiction people read, the better they were at the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test. A similar relationship held, though less strongly, for reading fiction and the Interpersonal Perception Test” (159).
Raymond Mar

            One major shortcoming of this study is that it fails to establish causality; people who are naturally better at reading emotions and making sound inferences about social interactions may gravitate to fiction for some reason. So Mar set up an experiment in which he had participants read either a nonfiction article from an issue of the New Yorker or a work of short fiction chosen to be the same length and require the same level of reading skills. When the two groups then took a test of social reasoning, the ones who had read the short story outperformed the control group. Both groups also took a test of analytic reasoning as a further control; on this variable there was no difference in performance between the groups. The outcome of this experiment, Oatley stresses, shouldn’t be interpreted as evidence that reading one story will increase your social skills in any meaningful and lasting way. But reading habits established over long periods likely explain the more significant differences between individuals found in the earlier study. As Oatley explains,

Readers of fiction tend to become more expert at making models of others and themselves, and at navigating the social world, and readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading. Raymond Mar’s experimental study on reading pieces from the New Yorker is probably best explained by priming. Reading a fictional piece puts people into a frame of mind of thinking about the social world, and this is probably why they did better at the test of social reasoning. (160)

Connecting these findings to real-world outcomes, Oatley and his team also found that “reading fiction was not associated with loneliness,” as the stereotype suggests, “but was associated with what psychologists call high social support, being in a circle of people whom participants saw a lot, and who were available to them practically and emotionally” (160).

            These studies by the University of Toronto team have received wide publicity, but the people who should be the most interested in them have little or no idea how to go about making sense of them. Most people simply either read fiction or they don’t. If you happen to be of the tribe who studies fiction, then you were probably educated in a way that engendered mixed feelings—profound confusion really—about science and how it works. In his review of The Storytelling Animal, a book in which Jonathan Gottschall incorporates the Toronto team’s findings into the theory that narrative serves the adaptive function of making human social groups more cooperative and cohesive, Adam Gopnik sneers,

Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

Oatley himself is well aware of the strange case of university English departments. He cites a report by Willie van Peer on a small study he did comparing students in the natural sciences to students in the humanities. Oatley explains,

There was considerable scatter, but on average the science students had higher emotional intelligence than the humanities students, the opposite of what was expected; van Peer indicts teaching in the humanities for often turning people away from human understanding towards technical analyses of details. (160)

Oatley suggests in a footnote that an earlier study corroborates van Peer’s indictment. It found that high school students who show more emotional involvement with short stories—the type of connection that would engender greater empathy—did proportionally worse on standard academic assessments of English proficiency. The clear implication of these findings is that the way literature is taught in universities and high schools is long overdue for an in-depth critical analysis.

            The idea that literature has the power to make us better people is not new; indeed, it was the very idea on which the humanities were originally founded. We have to wonder what people like Gopnik believe the point of celebrating literature is if not to foster greater understanding and empathy. If you either enjoy it or you don’t, and it has no beneficial effects on individuals or on society in general, why bother encouraging anyone to read? Why bother writing essays about it in the New Yorker? Tellingly, many scholars in the humanities began doubting the power of art to inspire greater humanity around the same time they began questioning the value and promise of scientific progress. Oatley writes,

Part of the devastation of World War II was the failure of German citizens, one of the world’s most highly educated populations, to prevent their nation’s slide into Nazism. George Steiner has famously asserted: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” (164)
Willie van Peer

Postwar literary theory and criticism has, perversely, tended toward the view that literature and language in general serve as a vessel for passing on all the evils inherent in our western, patriarchal, racist, imperialist culture. The purpose of literary analysis then becomes to shift out these elements and resist them. Unfortunately, such accusatory theories leave unanswered the question of why, if literature inculcates oppressive ideologies, we should bother reading it at all. As van Peer muses in the report Oatley cites, “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,”

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

           Oatley and van Peer point out, moreover, that the evidence for concentration camp workers having any degree of literary or aesthetic sophistication is nonexistent. According to the best available evidence, most of the greatest atrocities were committed by soldiers who never graduated high school. The suggestion that some type of cozy relationship existed between Nazism and an enthusiasm for Goethe runs afoul of recorded history. As Oatley points out,

Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear. (165)
Lynn Hunt

Oatley also cites the work of historian Lynn Hunt, whose book Inventing Human Rights traces the original social movement for the recognition of universal human rights to the mid-1700s, when what we recognize today as novels were first being written. Other scholars like Steven Pinker have pointed out too that, while it’s hard not to dwell on tragedies like the Holocaust, even atrocities of that magnitude are resoundingly overmatched by the much larger post-Enlightenment trend toward peace, freedom, and the wider recognition of human rights. It’s sad that one of the lasting legacies of all the great catastrophes of the 20th Century is a tradition in humanities scholarship that has the people who are supposed to be the custodians of our literary heritage hell-bent on teaching us all the ways that literature makes us evil.

            Because Oatley is a central figure in what we can only hope is a movement to end the current reign of self-righteous insanity in literary studies, it pains me not to be able to recommend Such Stuff as Dreams to anyone but dedicated specialists. Oatley writes in the preface that he has “imagined the book as having some of the qualities of fiction. That is to say I have designed it to have a narrative flow” (x), and it may simply be that this suggestion set my expectations too high. But the book is poorly edited, the prose is bland and often roles over itself into graceless tangles, and a couple of the chapters seem like little more than haphazardly collated reports of studies and theories, none exactly off-topic, none completely without interest, but all lacking any central progression or theme. The book often reads more like an annotated bibliography than a story. Oatley’s scholarly range is impressive, however, bearing not just on cognitive science and literature through the centuries but extending as well to the work of important literary theorists. The book is never unreadable, never opaque, but it’s not exactly a work of art in its own right.

            Insofar as Such Stuff as Dreams is organized around a central idea, it is that fiction ought be thought of not as “a direct impression of life,” as Henry James suggests in his famous essay “The Art of Fiction,” and as many contemporary critics—notably James Wood—seem to think of it. Rather, Oatley agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson’s response to James’s essay, “A Humble Remonstrance,” in which he writes that

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician. (qtd on pg 8)

Oatley theorizes that stories are simulations, much like dreams, that go beyond mere reflections of life to highlight through defamiliarization particular aspects of life, to cast them in a new light so as to deepen our understanding and experience of them. He writes,

Every true artistic expression, I think, is not just about the surface of things. It always has some aspect of the abstract. The issue is whether, by a change of perspective or by a making the familiar strange, by means of an artistically depicted world, we can see our everyday world in a deeper way. (15)

Critics of high-brow literature like Wood appreciate defamiliarization at the level of description; Oatley is suggesting here though that the story as a whole functions as a “metaphor-in-the-large” (17), a way of not just making us experience as strange some object or isolated feeling, but of reconceptualizing entire relationships, careers, encounters, biographies—what we recognize in fiction as plots. This is an important insight, and it topples verisimilitude from its ascendant position atop the hierarchy of literary values while rendering complaints about clichéd plots potentially moot. Didn’t Shakespeare recycle plots after all?

            The theory of fiction as a type of simulation to improve social skills and possibly to facilitate group cooperation is emerging as the frontrunner in attempts to explain narrative interest in the context of human evolution. It is to date, however, impossible to rule out the possibility that our interest in stories is not directly adaptive but instead emerges as a byproduct of other traits that confer more immediate biological advantages. The finding that readers track actions in stories with the same brain regions that activate when they witness similar actions in reality, or when they engage in them themselves, is important support for the simulation theory. But the function of mirror neurons isn’t well enough understood yet for us to determine from this study how much engagement with fictional stories depends on the reader's identifying with the protagonist. Oatley’s theory is more consonant with direct and straightforward identification. He writes,

A very basic emotional process engages the reader with plans and fortunes of a protagonist. This is what often drives the plot and, perhaps, keeps us turning the pages, or keeps us in our seat at the movies or at the theater. It can be enjoyable. In art we experience the emotion, but with it the possibility of something else, too. The way we see the world can change, and we ourselves can change. Art is not simply taking a ride on preoccupations and prejudices, using a schema that runs as usual. Art enables us to experience some emotions in contexts that we would not ordinarily encounter, and to think of ourselves in ways that usually we do not. (118)

Much of this change, Oatley suggests, comes from realizing that we too are capable of behaving in ways that we might not like. “I am capable of this too: selfishness, lack of sympathy” (193), is what he believes we think in response to witnessing good characters behave badly.

            Oatley’s theory has a lot to recommend it, but William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, which suggests we don’t identify with fictional characters directly but rather track them and anxiously hope for them to get whatever we feel they deserve, seems much more plausible in the context of our response to protagonists behaving in surprisingly selfish or antisocial ways. When I see Ed Norton as Tyler Durden beating Angel Face half to death in Fight Club, for instance, I don’t think, hey, that’s me smashing that poor guy’s face with my fists. Instead, I think, what the hell are you doing? I had you pegged as a good guy. I know you’re trying not to be as much of a pushover as you used to be but this is getting scary. I’m anxious that Angel Face doesn’t get too damaged—partly because I imagine that would be devastating to Tyler. And I’m anxious lest this incident be a harbinger of worse behavior to come.

            The issue of identification is just one of several interesting questions that can lend itself to further research. Oatley and Mar’s studies are not enormous in terms of sample size, and their subjects were mostly young college students. What types of fiction work the best to foster empathy? What types of reading strategies might we encourage students to apply to reading literature—apart from trying to remove obstacles to emotional connections with characters? But, aside from the Big-Bad-Western Empire myth that currently has humanities scholars grooming successive generations of deluded ideologues to be little more than culture vultures presiding over the creation and celebration of Loser Lit, the other main challenge to transporting literary theory onto firmer empirical grounds is the assumption that the arts in general and literature in particular demand a wholly different type of thinking to create and appreciate than the type that goes into the intricate mechanics and intensely disciplined practices of science.
Simon Baron-Cohen

As Oatley and the Toronto team have shown, people who enjoy fiction tend to have the opposite of autism. And people who do science are, well, Sheldon. Interestingly, though, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, for whatever reason, included some contraindications for a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s in Sheldon’s character. Like the other scientists in the show, he’s obsessed with comic books, which require at least some understanding of facial expression and body language to follow. As Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher who designed the Mind-in-the-Eyes test, explains, “Autism is an empathy disorder: those with autism have major difficulties in 'mindreading' or putting themselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining the world through someone else’s feelings” (137). Baron-Cohen has coined the term “mindblindness” to describe the central feature of the disorder, and many have posited that the underlying cause is abnormal development of the brain regions devoted to perspective taking and understanding others, what cognitive psychologists refer to as our Theory of Mind.

            To follow comic book plotlines, Sheldon would have to make ample use of his own Theory of Mind. He’s also given to absorption in various science fiction shows on TV. If he were only interested in futuristic gadgets, as an autistic would be, he could just as easily get more scientifically plausible versions of them in any number of nonfiction venues. By Baron-Cohen’s definition, Sherlock Holmes can’t possibly have Asperger’s either because his ability to get into other people’s heads is vastly superior to pretty much everyone else’s. As he explains in “The Musgrave Ritual,” “You know my methods in such cases, Watson: I put myself in the man’s place, and having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances.”

            What about Darwin, though, that demigod of science who openly professed to being nauseated by Shakespeare? Isn’t he a prime candidate for entry into the surprisingly unpopulated ranks of heartless, data-crunching scientists whose thinking lends itself so conveniently to cooptation by oppressors and committers of wartime atrocities? It turns out that though Darwin held many of the same racist views as nearly all educated men of his time, his ability to empathize across racial and class divides was extraordinary. Darwin was not himself a Social Darwinist, a theory devised by Herbert Spencer to justify inequality (which has currency still today among political conservatives). And Darwin was also a passionate abolitionist, as is clear in the following excerpts from The Voyage of the Beagle:

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate.

Darwin is responding to cruelty in a way no one around him at the time would have. And note how deeply it pains him, how profound and keenly felt his sympathy is.

I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.

            The question arises, not whether Darwin had sacrificed his humanity to science, but why he had so much more humanity than many other intellectuals of his day.

It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease.

And finally we come to the matter of Darwin’s Theory of Mind, which was quite clearly in no way deficient.

Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin. (530-31)

            I suspect that Darwin’s distaste for Shakespeare was borne of oversensitivity. He doesn't say music failed to move him; he didn’t like it because it made him think “too energetically.” And as aesthetically pleasing as Shakespeare is, existentially speaking, his plays tend to be pretty harsh, even the comedies. When Prospero says, "We are such stuff / as dreams are made on" in Act 4 of The Tempest, he's actually talking not about characters in stories, but about how ephemeral and insignificant real human lives are. But why, beyond some likely nudge from his inherited temperament, was Darwin so sensitive? Why was he so empathetic even to those so vastly different from him? After admitting he’d lost his taste for Shakespeare, paintings, and music, he goes to say,

On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.
[Check out the Toronto group's blog at onfiction.ca]


Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

            No one is a better reader of literary language than James Wood. In his reviews, he conveys with grace and precision his uncanny feel for what authors set out to say, what they actually end up saying, and what any discrepancy might mean for their larger literary endeavor. He effortlessly and convincingly infers from the lurch of faulty lines the confusions and pretentions and lacuna in understanding of struggling writers. Some take steady aim at starkly circumscribed targets, his analysis suggests, while others, desperate to achieve some greater, more devastating impact, shoot wistfully into the clouds. He can even listen to the likes of republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum and explain, with his seemingly eidetic knowledge of biblical history, what is really meant when the supposed Catholic uses the word steward.

            As a critic, Wood’s ability to see character in narration and to find the author, with all his conceits and difficulties, in the character is often downright unsettling. For him there exists no divide between language and psychology—literature is the struggle of conflicted minds to capture the essence of experiences, their own and others’.

When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture/ The first fine careless rapture,’ he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants,’ says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants. (24)

This is from Wood’s How Fiction Works. In the midst of a long paean to the power of free indirect style, the technique that allows the language of the narrator to bend toward and blend with the thoughts and linguistic style of characters—moving in and out of their minds—he deigns to mention, in a footnote, an actual literary theory, or rather Literary Theory. Wood likes Nabokov’s scene in the novel Pnin that has the eponymous professor trying to grasp a nutcracker in a sink full of dishes. The narrator awkwardly calls it a “leggy thing” as it slips through his grasp. “Leggy” conveys the image. “But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’?” (25) The vagueness makes of the psychological drama a contagion. There could be no symbol more immediately felt.

            The Russian Formalists come into Wood’s discussion here. Their theory focused on metaphors that bring about an “estranging” or “defamiliarizing” effect. Wood would press them to acknowledge that this making strange of familiar objects and experiences works in the service of connecting the minds of the reader with the mind of the character—it’s anything but random:

But whereas the Russian Formalists see this metaphorical habit as emblematic of the way that fiction does not refer to reality, is a self-enclosed machine (such metaphors are the jewels of the author’s freakish, solipsistic art), I prefer the way that such metaphors, as in Pnin’s “leggy thing,” refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves, and are fruits of free indirect style. (26)

Language and words and metaphors, Wood points out, by their nature carry us toward something that is diametrically opposed to collapsing in ourselves. Indeed, there is something perverse about the insistence of so many professional scholars devoted to the study of literature that the main thrust of language is toward some unacknowledged agenda of preserving an unjust status quo—with the implication that the only way to change the world is to torture our modes of expression, beginning with literature (even though only a tiny portion of most first world populations bother to read any).

I'm not a Rick Moody fan, so here's a pic of Hank Moody,
who famously said, "Literary theory? None for me thanks."
            For Wood, fiction is communion. This view has implications about what constitutes the best literature—all the elements from description to dialogue should work to further the dramatic development of the connection between reader and character. Wood even believes that the emphasis on “round” characters is overstated, pointing out that many of the most memorable—Jean Brodie, Mr. Biswas—are one-dimensional and unchanging. Nowhere in the table of contents of How Fiction Works, or even in the index, does the word plot appear. He does, however, discuss plot in his response to postmodernists’ complaints about realism. Wood quotes author Rick Moody:

It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull. Therefore, it needs a kick in the ass.

Moody is known for a type of fiction that intentionally sabotages the sacred communion Wood sees as essential to the experience of reading fiction. He begins his response by unpacking some of the claims in Moody’s fussy pronouncement:

Moody’s three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is a “genre” (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction-making); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in “round” characters, but softly and piously (“conventional humanisms”); it assumes that the world can be described, with a naively stable link between word and referent (“philosophically dubious”); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics (“politically… dubious”).

Wood begins the section following this analysis with a one-sentence paragraph: “This is all more or less nonsense” (224-5) (thus winning my devoted readership).
Ben Lerner
            That “more or less” refers to Wood’s own frustrations with modern fiction. Conventions, he concedes, tend toward ossification, though a trope’s status as a trope, he maintains, doesn’t make it untrue. “I love you,” is the most clichéd sentence in English. That doesn’t nullify the experience of falling in love (236). Wood does believe, however, that realistic fiction is too eventful to live up to the label. Reviewing Ben Lerner’s exquisite short novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Wood lavishes praise on the postmodernist poet’s first work of fiction. He writes of the author and his main character Adam Gordon,

Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict," fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. Several times in the book, he describes this as "that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance… the texture of et cetera itself." Reading Tolstoy, Adam reflects that even that great master of the texture of et cetera itself was too dramatic, too tidy, too momentous: "Not the little miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time." (98)

Wood is suspicious of plot, and even of those epiphanies whereby characters are rendered dynamic or three-dimensional or “round,” because he seeks in fiction new ways of seeing the world he inhabits according to how it might be seen by lyrically gifted fellow inhabitants. Those “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict’" tend to be implausible distractions,
forcing the communion into narrow confessionals, breaking the spell.

            As a critic who has garnered wide acclaim from august corners conferring a modicum of actual authority, and one who's achieved something quite rare for public intellectuals, a popular following, Wood is (too) often criticized for his narrow aestheticism. Once he closes the door on goofy postmodern gimcrack, it remains closed to other potentially relevant, potentially illuminating cultural considerations—or so his detractors maintain. That popular following of his is, however, comprised of a small subset of fiction readers. And the disconnect between consumers of popular fiction and the more literary New Yorker subscribers speaks not just to the cultural issue of declining literacy or growing apathy toward fictional writing but to the more fundamental question of why people seek out narratives, along with the question Wood proposes to address in the title of his book, how does fiction work?  

            While Wood communes with synesthetic flaneurs, many readers are looking to have their curiosity piqued, their questing childhood adventurousness revived, their romantic and nightmare imaginings played out before them. “If you look at the best of literary fiction," Benjamin Percy said in an interview with Joe Fassler,

you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany.

The scene Percy describes is even more eventful than what Lerner describes as “life’s white machine”—it features one of those damn epiphanies. But Percy is frustrated with heavy-handed plots too.

In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next.
Benjamin Percy
The interview is part of Fessler’s post on the Atlantic website, “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction.” Percy is explaining the appeal of a new class of novel.

So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.

Is it possible to balance the two impulses: the urge to represent and defamiliarize, to commune, on the one hand, and the urge to create and experience suspense on the other? Obviously, if the theme you’re taking on is the struggle with boredom or the meaningless wash of time—white machine reminds me of a washer—then an incident-rich plot can only be ironic.
Ian McEwan
            The solution to the conundrum is that no life is without incident. Fiction’s subject has always been births, deaths, comings-of-age, marriages, battles. I’d imagine Wood himself is often in the mood for something other than idle reflection. Ian McEwan, whose Atonement provides Wood an illustrative example of how narration brilliantly captures character, is often taken to task for overplotting his novels. Citing Henry James in a New Yorker interview with Daniel Zalewski to the effect that novels have an obligation to “be interesting,” McEwan admits finding “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.” And if he thinks most novels are boring he should definitely stay away from the short fiction that gets published in the New Yorker nowadays.
Scene from Atonement that never took place

A further implication of Wood’s observation about narration’s capacity for connecting reader to character is that characters who live eventful lives should inhabit eventful narratives. This shifts the issue of plot back to the issue of character, so the question is not what types of things should or shouldn’t happen in fiction but rather what type of characters do we want to read about? And there’s no question that literary fiction over the last century has been dominated by a bunch of passive losers, men and women flailing desperately about before succumbing to societal or biological forces. In commercial fiction, the protagonists beat the odds; in literature, the odds beat the protagonists.

There’s a philosophy at play in this dynamic. Heroes are thought to lend themselves to a certain view of the world, where overcoming sickness and poverty and cultural impoverishment is more of a rite of passage than a real gauge of how intractable those impediments are for nearly everyone who faces them. If audiences are exposed to too many tales of heroism, then hardship becomes a prop in personal development. Characters overcoming difficulties trivializes those difficulties. Winston Smith can’t escape O’Brien and Room 101 or readers won’t appreciate the true threat posed by Big Brother. The problem is that the ascent of the passive loser and the fiction of acquiescence don’t exactly inspire reform-minded action either.

Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is definitely a loser. He worries all day that he’s some kind of impostor. He’s whiny and wracked with self-doubt. But even he doesn’t sit around doing nothing. The novel is about his trip to Spain. He pursues women with mixed success. He does readings of his poetry. He witnesses a terrorist attack. And these activities and events are interesting, as James insisted they must be. Capturing the feel of uneventful passages of time may be a worthy literary ambition, but most people seek out fiction to break up periods of nothingness. It’s never the case in real life that nothing is happening anyway—we’re at every instance getting older. I for one don’t find the prospect of spending time with people or characters who just sit passively by as that happens all that appealing.
In a remarkably lame failure of a lampoon in Harper's Colson Whitehead targets Wood's enthusiasm for Saul Bellow. And Bellow was indeed one of those impossibly good writers who could describe eating Corn Flakes and make it profound and amusing. Still, I'm a little suspicious of anyone who claims to enjoy (though enjoyment shouldn't be the only measure of literary merit) reading about the Bellow characters who wander around Chicago as much as reading about Henderson wandering around Africa. 

  Henderson: I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity I get to hang out with that crazy bastard.

Read "Can't Win for Losing: Why there are so many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change"